Shakespeare in space: “Troilus and Cressida” blasts off at the Majestic

by | Mar 5, 2022 | Arts and Entertainment | 0 comments

Does Shakespeare and science fiction sound like an odd mixture to you? Hold that thought for a moment before you answer.

Consider: The classic 1956 sci-fi flick “Forbidden Planet” was, at the very least, inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” You can argue that some of the “Star Wars” movies play like space-opera Shakespearean tragedy, in particular “Revenge of the Sith,” which traces the evolution of lovestruck Anakin Skywalker into villainous Darth Vader.  

And, of course, Shakespeare always wrote with an eye to his audience; the Bard likely would have been reluctant to reject “genre fiction” such as sci-fi out of hand.

Brandon Urey has spent a lot of time over the last few months thinking about this. Urey has adapted a lesser-known play by the Bard, “Troilus and Cressida,” and has transplanted it from its original setting amidst the Trojan War into deep space. The story and the language remain essentially the same – except that where it used to involve Trojans and Greeks, now it involves warring planets.

Urey’s production of “Troilus and Cressida” plays live at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 5 on the Majestic Theatre’s Facebook page.  It’s the latest edition in the Majestic’s “Majesticpiece Theatre” series of online performances. (A recording of the live production will be available shortly after the live production ends, and a slightly edited version of the production will be available a few days afterward on the Majestic’s YouTube page; see the sidebar at the bottom of this story for more details about the show.)

“I feel like sometimes there’s a bit of a snooty attitude toward genre fiction, even though oftentimes it tells very detailed stories in and of itself, and Shakespeare shares a lot of DNA with that,” said Urey, who uses them/they pronouns. “In my book, Shakespeare and space opera are not as incompatible as some people may make them out to be.”

“I’m a huge nerd and I love genre fiction,” they said. “Getting into theater, I realized you don’t see that on stage that often, and part of that is just due to the practicalities of costumes and props, right? Which was why I got excited after we did more and more of these (online) plays because then the technology opened up possibilities. You could use filters to stand in for special effects and such.”

So, for example, in a major battle sequence near the end of “Troilus,” Urey said, “we get to see all our actors decked out. Most of them are going to be using snap camera filters that add cyborg or other glowing bits, holographic stuff, all very cool-looking. And then we’re also going to be using some technology to put explosions and laser blasts in the background, which lends itself really well to that scene, because it’s so fast-paced.”

But before Urey could think too much about the special effects, they faced the heavy lift of adapting “Troilus and Cressida,” one of the Bard’s so-called “problem plays.” The play is, by turns, comical, farcical, satirical, heroic and tragic – and it can switch tones in a hurry.

The play opens seven years into the Trojan War and mostly takes place in the Greek camps outside Troy. But Shakespeare is interested primarily in the two Trojan lovers of the title: Troilus is the brother of Paris, whose abduction of Helen triggered the war. Cressida is the daughter of a Trojan prophet, Calchas, who has defected to the Greeks. The play also spends time with three Greek warriors: manipulative Ulysses, proud Achilles and dimwitted Ajax. Since the play satirizes both warfare and romantic love, the clown Thersites frequently is on hand to offer scalding comments on the proceedings: He is, as Urey said, “an equal-opportunity insulter.”

Urey worked hard to trim the play, which is among one of Shakespeare’s longest: An unabridged performance of “Troilus” likely would run roughly three and a half hours. By the time the cuts were finished, Urey had trimmed about an hour from the play – and some of the cuts were painful.

In casting the play, Urey wanted to emphasize newcomers to Majesticpiece Theatre productions – in many cases, actors who might not be able to participate, for whatever reason, in main stage productions at the Majestic. After all, some two years ago, Urey was a Majesticpiece newcomer: “And that was such a great experience for me that I kept doing it and now I’m doing shows on stage too.”

Those early Majesticpiece productions came about by necessity, as community theater companies responded to pandemic closures by offering online productions. At the time, Urey said, those productions had a bit of a “Wild West” vibe: “We were just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what stuck.”

These days, the technology involved is more sophisticated, allowing directors like Urey to craft ambitious productions that might be too difficult or expensive to produce on stage.

“It’s so exciting,” Urey said. “That was one of the reasons why I wanted to be part of this. This is innovative, this is cutting edge. I wanted to be part of this.”

If You Watch

What: “Troilus and Cressida,” a Majesticpiece Theatre production.

When: The show airs live at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 5 on the Majestic’s Facebook Live page. A recording of the live performance will be available on the Facebook page shortly afterward. A lightly edited version will be posted sometime in the days following on the Majestic’s YouTube page.

How much: Access to the show is free.

Is the show suitable for young children? Probably not – it’s Shakespeare, after all. The Majestic has given the show a PG-13 rating.

Looking for something to do in the mid-valley? Check out my curated calendar of arts-and-entertainment events.

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